OLDS — Grizzlys head coach and GM Scott Atkinson is confident his team will be much more competitive than previous editions when the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s (AJHL) 2021-22 season begins Sept. 17.
"We did cut two goals against a game off our defensive average, so that was good. Last year we gave up a lot of goals and this year we gave up a lot less,” Atkinson said during an interview.
That said, he believes there’s still lots of room for improvement.
“We have to be able to score more goals and we have to be able to generate more offence -- period -- and then continue to shore up our defensive game," he said.
Atkinson said a lot of Grizzlys made major improvement this past season.
“Some guys made dramatic gains in terms of their skill, their speed – all that kind of stuff -- and hopefully that’s going to pay off next year,” he said.
The very abbreviated 2020 season was a tough one for the Grizzlys. They won two games, lost 11 and ended up with two overtime losses in 15 games.
Atkinson indicated a big factor in that record is that the 2021 edition of the team was the youngest “experientially” in the league.
“I think we averaged less than a game a year of junior experience per player and we had 16 guys who had no junior experience, so that’s a steep hill in terms of competing.
“But we found out a lot about guys and are in a better position to recruit better and go forward, so quite happy with the year,” he said.
Atkinson said some guys didn’t realize just how skilled and competitive players are in the AJHL.
“I think that that has been a problem in the past, where the players that we had weren’t prepared to play at this level,” he said.
“Now they’re dead clear on how much work it takes and some guys will do it and some guys won’t and there’ll be some guys in between (who’ll) have to grow to it,” he said.
Currently, the AJHL is planning for a regular 60-game schedule for the 2021-22 season.
Training camps begin Aug. 20 and the exhibition season starts on Aug. 27.
The puck drops for the league’s 58th season on Sept. 17.
A new wrinkle this year is the addition of the Blackfalds Bulldogs, who will be in the AJHL’s Viterra South Division, along with the Grizzlys. In total, the league will ice 16 teams next season.
A schedule for the 2021 AJHL exhibition season and 2021-22 regular season will be announced in July.
The league’s 2021 season was an abbreviated one, due to COVID-19 restrictions. Teams were divided up into cohorts.
That made for a bit of a weird season, but Atkinson said that was kind of an advantage.
“We approached like exactly what it was. It was a bunch of exhibition games. So what we did was sort of a fact-finding mission, right? We were looking at what we have and how they train," Atkinson said.
“We trained a lot in person and we trained a lot via Zoom and so we found out what makes our guys tick and feel like we’re in a better position to move forward.”
Atkinson said the team actually benefitted from the cohort-style schedule as they ended up playing a lot of games against two powerhouses: the Okotoks Oilers and the Brooks Bandits, who are not only among the best teams in the AJHL but in the country as well.
“That was good for us to kind of find out where we’re at and what we look like against very top teams,” he said.